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Heroes or martyrs?
Heroes or martyrs?
The Arab world presents a generally grim picture of media freedom.
Friday, May 4,2007 13:19
by Mohammed Adel Guardian

The Arab world presents a generally grim picture of media freedom. Newspapers and television or radio stations are generally impossible to start without the state"s approval and require close connections to ruling regimes. While satellite news stations such as al-Jazeera have brought much good to the media landscape, they are not immune from the backroom dealings between Arab regimes or powerful business and political interests.

Local Rupert Murdochs have brought more polished, consumer-oriented media - a vast improvement over ossified state organs - but they tread carefully on the most sensitive issues, not wanting to endanger vast business empires. Even the most courageous journalists know they can be only a pen stroke away from being sacked, banned, imprisoned, or worse. Al-Jazeera journalist Howeida Taha found this out yesterday when an Egyptian court sentenced her in absentia to six months in prison - just in time for World Press Freedom Day.

It is little surprise, then, that in the past few years, some of the best journalism in the region has come from a burgeoning local blogosphere. Take the example of Egypt, the most populous Arab country and a cultural leader in the region. Last autumn, bloggers such as Wael Abbas - the closest thing in the Egyptian blogosphere to a wire service - were the first to publish gruesome torture videos made by police officers with their mobile phones. If you were interested in the wave of labour unrest that Egypt has exerienced in the last six months, you could do no better than to turn to Arabawy, where leftist journalist and blogger Hossam el-Hamalawy has kept tabs on a social upheaval barely covered by official Egyptian media. National indignation over the harassment of women in Downtown Cairo last Eid (the Muslim holiday after Ramadan) could not have become the major talking point of television chat shows for a week if it were not for bloggers that had captured the event on their mobile phones and broadcast it on YouTube. Bloggers have on repeated occasions imposed their agenda on the mainstream media, which could not afford to ignore what many were discussing online anyway.

It is not only that bloggers are widening the quantity of information available in a region where political gossip is often more trusted than official statements. They are also deepening the quality and breadth of debate with the abandon that only the rush of ego-driven publishing (and anonymity) can provide.

Take, for instance, sectarian relations in Egypt. While the official media would like us to believe that all is well between Christians and Muslims, bloggers discuss the pent-up resentment of the two communities with refreshing rawness, addressing head-on an issue that has long been simmering just below the surface of polite conversation. Islamists and ardent secularists go at each others" throats. Gays and lesbians form online communities away from a society where they are not accepted. Pro-American neo-conservatives trade barbs with radical Arab nationalists over the invasion of Iraq.

But most of all, Egyptian bloggers send up their leaders, politicians and each other with characteristic humour - such as the comic genius behind Abu Gamal"s village, who re-imagines President Hosni Mubarak and his entourage as archetypal dim-but-cunnning peasants in rural Egypt (for the British equivalent, think New Labour as the Grundies from The Archers). Or the bloggers who will be hosting a street party to celebrate the wedding of Egypt"s heir-apparent Gamal Mubarak - with the slogan "Marry her, not our country!"

The great thing about this new room for debate is that it harms no one and escapes the limitations of accepted discourse in the real world. Or at least it did until recently. Although it took time, Egypt"s zealous security services have begun to catch up with bloggers, as in the case of Abdel Kareem Soliman, a Muslim who lambasted his co-religionists after sectarian clashes in his hometown of Alexandria. Soliman ended up being sentenced to four years in prison for an anti-Muslim post he wrote, becoming a poster child for online freedom of speech. A few months later, Abdel Moneim Mahmoud, an Islamist blogger, was in turn arrested. While earning much less media coverage - as Islamist political prisoners generally do - Mahmoud"s case has now rallied much of the Egyptian blogosphere.

That unusual show of support for an Islamist in Egypt"s secularist-dominated blogosphere came in recognition that Mahmoud had broken ranks with the powerful political movement to which he belongs, the Muslim Brotherhood, and voiced support for Soliman despite disapproving of what he wrote.

"Freedom is now an obligation and should be implemented before Sharia," he wrote. "Advocating freedom is more important than sticking posters [or] advocating prayers. I disagree with Kareem"s opinion, but I agree that it"s unfair to treat him this way and punish him for his personal opinions."

Bloggers from across the political spectrum are now returning the favour - even if most western media outlets have yet to pick up the story. Mahmoud has now been held in detention for two weeks, although he has yet to be charged with any crime.

These arrests appear to be part of a pattern: Egypt"s security apparatus has taken note of bloggers and is attempting to impose the same "red lines" that govern most of the mainstream media. Take it from the country"s chief cop, minister of interior Habib al-Adly, who said in a televised interview on the occasion of Police Day last January that posting information on the internet against the government as "a very dangerous crime".

Leaving no ambiguity about what he thought of the bloggers who had revealed police brutality, he added: "I consider this to be an unpatriotic campaign to hit a national service that seeks stability in the country."

Most recently, Sandmonkey, an English-language blogger with a large American readership, announced he was going to stop blogging. "One of the chief reasons is the fact that there has been too much heat around me lately," he wrote. "I no longer believe that my anonymity is kept, especially with State Security agents lurking around my street." But, as he later clarified, Sandmonkey"s decision also had to do with his frustration over the failure of bloggers to evolve beyond a media phenomenon and rally around each other when, as is increasingly the case in Egypt and the Middle East, they are under siege.

While journalists in the Arab world still have, in theory at least, unions and laws to protect them, bloggers enjoy no such protection. The Committee to Protect Bloggers, an initiative to provide the same services to support many NGOs provide for journalists, has closed due to lack of funding. The fact is that young political bloggers in undemocratic countries have little awareness of the legal resources potentially available to them, of how to avoid detection, or of libel and other laws their writings might be attacked for. Now that the well-honed repressive skills of Arab security services are catching up with them, who will stand up for bloggers?

Posted in Human Rights , Other Issues , Military Tribunal  
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